I walked in the door of my house in Tucson, Arizona, after being away for the better part of 2 years and got my first whiff of the old house. The smell was familiar and comforting — a combination of wool rugs, oil paintings, and linseed oil on teak furniture. My house seemed like a museum of my life — as if all had been put on hold while I was traveling the world.
The first thing I said to my housemate Jon, after I hauled my suitcases over the threshold and clicked the door behind me was, “Where does one begin the task of repatriation?” The profundity of the moment was lost on him as he didn’t get up from the TV. But it wasn’t lost on me. I had, after all, turned my back on this place, this house, this everything. I had walked away in disgust of the 4G’s of America. The greed. The god. The gluttony. The guns. None of that changed in my absence and yet here I am happy to be back where I started. What had changed was me. And this return was significant. I was returning to my old life with a new twist — a changed man. A loved man. A man.
How did you know when you were finally a grown-up or perhaps more importantly when you stopped being a child? I’ve marked my own achievement of manhood at various points along the way: my first car, my first boyfriend, the first death of a loved one, the first time I tried to kill myself, buying my first house, building a house, starting a business, watching it fail. And now this — becoming an expat and repatriating.
Two years ago I threw away what billions of people would consider the winning lottery ticket of life: American citizenship. I didn’t actually revoke my citizenship but I swore I wasn’t ever going to live in the US again. A gritty 18 months in Malaysia made me rethink all that. In fact it brought me to my knees, quite literally many times — on my knees before a toilet vomiting my delicate western guts out. But for all that I bitterly complained about America, Malaysia was worse. Way worse. In fact, other than a few select countries I visited in Europe and New Zealand, I’d say that the whole world has it a lot worse than America.
I came to see that although guns really aren’t much of a problem in Southeast Asia, all the remaining G’s I fled were alive and well there and the God issue is even worse. So let’s just say Malaysia was 3G…just like my mobile phone in Kuala Lumpur. But I can’t complain too much. (Well, I can because we have freedom of speech.) But I did find love in a place I really came to hate. More about that in the months to come.
First Impressions of America
My re-entry to the US was through Denver, Colorado. After an all night flight from Tokyo on the Dreamliner (which was fabulous) I wandered the Denver airport looking for something to eat and was struck by how friendly and service oriented Americans are. “Hello, welcome to ____, what can I get for you? Would you like a home baked cookie with that? How’s your day going? Would you like something to drink? Cups are here if you would like water. Great. Thanks. Awesome. Have a nice day!” I was returning from Malaysia, a country not known for its smiling service sector or its free water. So Americans aren’t known for their deep sincerity but somehow when someone smiles and greets you and asks how you are, it makes you feel a little less lonely. So, I’ll take fluffy insincerity now after a long period of gruff indifference. But don’t neglect the tip jar in America…which explains the awesome gratitude at the cash register.
I took my sandwich and “home baked” cookie to a table and sat near a middle-aged Jewish couple in polar fleece jumpers. They were chatting about their son’s college and the snow storm coming and whether they would get out before it arrived. I enjoyed having 100% comprehension of all chatter around me. In Asia I drifted into public isolation as most of what was spoken around me, about me, or at me, made no sense. It became just a drone of sing songy gibberish and I had no chance of ever getting to the bottom of anything. Foreigners must just accept what they get and don’t ask questions. Tough for Americans who really want to know everything. We are a curious people and we are generally allowed our curiosity within the confines of our own country. And in the US, you can complain without fear of the dreaded SAVE FACE whereby Asians will disappear you in a snap if you criticize them in any way. Here a well armed and defensive American will just shoot you if you if you criticize them too much. Well, I guess that’s some form of the same thing.
I also noticed that I’m instantly invisible in America. Really, almost no one is exotic in America because of its multi-ethnicity. We have a lot of everything. In Asia I savored being exoticized…it had lots of perks. People usually had a little more respect for me than I get here, they listened to me if they could understand me or looked at me with fascination if they couldn’t. At least they looked at me and often with lust…something that never, ever happens to me here. But being white in Asia also comes with monetary expectations. It is presumed that all white people in Asia are rich. If only they knew. Here in the US, I’m back to being ordinary in both looks and means.
One of the things I noticed immediately when I arrived in Tucson was the resounding quiet. Malaysia is a densely populated country with 30 million citizens and over 2 million foreign workers + tourists crammed into a country about the size of the state of New Mexico, which by the way, has a population of 2 million. There’s just no way to cram that many people into a small land mass and have it be tranquil. Add in 21 million motor vehicles, 9 million of which are motorcycles, half of which don’t have mufflers, and my ears were ringing and I didn’t even know it. It was so quiet in my Arizona living room that I found it both startling and hypnotic. I can still hear Asia ringing in my ears. It’s as if I can’t get the motorcycles out of my ears.
Silence in the desert is a formidable presence. The quiet presses into your head. It’s like placing a seashell next to your ear only you don’t hear the ocean. It can either seem deeply relaxing or it can drive you to distraction. Two weeks after my arrival, I’m still sitting in silence in my backyard in awe of this phenomenon of emptiness. The only buzzing is the sound of hummingbirds whizzing by my head on the way to the feeder.
Last night, something significant happened: I fell asleep and slept the whole night without the use of white noise or earplugs. My patient boyfriend can tell you all about the white noise which I could not sleep without. In Malaysia it covered everything from the ungodly early call to prayer to the midnight motorcycle racing on the streets to the commuter train 30 floors below that rattled the house every 2 minutes. All the unintelligible chatter of languages I couldn’t understand and the moan of mosques and machinery left 9,000 miles behind me, I now sit here in my house stunned by what was missing from my life: nothingness. Delicious nothingness. I can open the front door and it’s quieter outside than inside.
A short list of other observations of America:
There is a vast infrastructure of fine arts organizations in America. This is the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus – of which I am a part (I sing bass). We’re rehearsing Carmina Burana under the exacting and brilliant tutelage of Dr. Bruce Chamberlain. The University of Arizona has a huge music school with free or cheap musical events happening every day and night of the week and a Steinway in every room. There’s also a culture here of pursuit of excellence. It’s a great privilege to have my musical ass kicked into shape every week. How wonderful it is to have passed the audition to sing with 100 other accomplished musicians (the soloists are from the Grammy Award winning ensemble Conspirare) and to be sharing the stage with a full, professional orchestra (founded in 1928). And there’s a university, chorus, and orchestra like this in practically every city in America. FYI – performances of Carmina Burana will be March 18 & 20 with seating capacity at 2,300 for each performance. It will probably sell out.
Americans love to complain about how underfunded the arts are here. And then some private donor gives $20,000,000 to the University’s music department (this just happened). We have it good here and if you don’t think we do, I invite you to live somewhere else to gain perspective. I know of a city at the 3rd parallel you can go to. I assure you there’s not a Steinway in every room. Some say America is a nation in decline. That may be true depending on how you measure it, but it has a long way to go before it reaches a level that a lot of nations will never even get to. Malaysia is stymied by corruption and sloth and should be so lucky to achieve what America has even in its decline.
Old architecture and the preservation of heritage buildings. They’re everywhere here but only exist in a few precious locales in Malaysia. The rest there is an endless jumble of ugly shop lots (strip malls) that all look alike or the ubiquitous soulless shopping mall with parking garage vortices. I’ve been in Tucson 2 weeks and haven’t even seen a shopping mall. Allahu akbar!
The White American diet. Americans really embrace any new diet that will help them lose weight or feel special. We could say Americans have a lot of free time and money to indulge in such things. Yes, we could say that.
Big, fat, juicy, red tomatoes that are sweet. Nevermind that it costs $2. It’s worth it. I just couldn’t find a good tomato in Asia where they are pink and tasteless. It’s not a tropical fruit. It takes a Mediterranean climate to make a tomato sweet. And if it isn’t sweet, what’s the point?
Open space. Sidewalks. Bike lanes. And stop lights that mean STOP, not STOP if you’re Chinese in a car and GO if you’re Malay on a motorbike. And sidewalks without cars and motorcycles blocking them. Heavens, if you parked your car on a sidewalk in America, it either wouldn’t be there when you came back or you would be shot by some person in a motorized wheelchair. And you would deserve it.
Truly a sign of a civilized society: paper towels. So glad I no longer have to wipe my wet hands on my shirt. Alas, there’s no such thing as a toilet sprayer (bidet) here in the US. But there is now at my house. Stop by and give it a whirl! You can buy kits and install them yourself.
Cheap alcohol and large selection of blue cheeses. Alcohol in the US is about 1/4 the price of Malaysia.
A dazzling selection of microbrew beers. Haram! It’s enough to make a grown man cry knowing that I no longer have to drink Carlsberg beer and I can ask for a hefeweizen without getting that puzzled look followed by SAVE FACE.
Blue skies. Wool sweaters. Felt pork pie hats. Not pictured: lace up shoes.
Boys in pink pants and orange cashmere. America is a country without the “tall poppy syndrome.” The more outrageous the better because everyone wants to be famous and go viral and get invited on Ellen. I saw this boy cycling by and I just asked if I could take his picture. He happily obliged without any questions. It’s refreshing after being in a Muslim country where people lurk in the shadows of Islam and everyone is suspect of being something. No one but no one would ride a blue bike in pink pants and an orange sweater in Malaysia. No one in his right mind would ride a bike in Asia, honestly. It’s both dangerous and so déclassé. It’s very heartwarming to be in a country where cycling is revered and respected. Decent upstanding people with BMW’s in their garages cycle. And we walk too. That’s just what people do once they’ve been through their industrial revolution and out the other side.
Am I being annoyingly patriotic? Americans can be spoiled rotten and I don’t consider myself among them. But I do believe in recognizing when you’ve got it good and being grateful for it. And I believe in contributing to making your community great wherever you are. But if Donald F. Trump gets elected, I’m going back.
Chuan with the Burmese refugees. The photo was shot after I had left. Chuan was delivering the donated household items to them. Apparently they said, “Thank you. Do you have a sofa?”
As expected, it was terribly painful to have to leave Chuan behind. It’s always harder for the one staying. The night before my flight, we closed the door on the last guest who came to say goodbye. The moment I closed the door, Chuan melted into my arms and wept…one of the only times since we met. I held him sharing the pain of acknowledgment that having a binational relationship means long periods of separation. I have been amazed at Chuan’s personal strength in difficult situations but I left him with the unenviable task of closing up the apartment after my departure. He dropped me off at the airport and went back to the apartment. By the time I got to Tokyo he texted me that it was just too painful to do on his own. I was glad our friend Hao Yen was able to come by and help him out. Thank you again, HY for rescuing my boyfriend in my absence!
What I was unable to sell to friends and neighbors got donated to the Burmese refugee. Chuan took some giant IKEA bags full of goodies to them. I sent them some nice handmade placemats, realizing afterward that they don’t even have a table on which to place them.
As much as I didn’t like Kuala Lumpur, in the end I’m glad I went because I met Chuan. I could have stayed home in Tucson complaining about being lonely the rest of my life. I took a risk and spent a lot of money. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it. We did have a sweet life in that apartment because we were together and that gave it meaning and purpose. Closing up that chapter was very poignant and only improved by the knowledge that our separation is only temporary. What will be written in the new chapter will very likely be fabulous in a way that just wasn’t possible in Malaysia. I’m pulling out all the stops to show him my life here. It’s my invitation. My proposal.
Now we wait.